The Good: Wonderful artistic graphics of a bizarre and enchanting world. The Bad: Combat gets monotonous after awhile The Ugly: Utterly incomprehensible plot
Woo, this is a weird one all right. Often I can dig deep into my gaming history and say that this game is like that other one, and people who had played that other game would have a good idea of what I’m talking about. Not this time. Not really. Zeno Clash is essentially an FPS combat game. Maybe I could call it Oblivion, or perhaps Dark Messiah, without the weapons or magic or RPG bits, but it also has elements that are like the old Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter arcade games (even down to the vs. screens just before combat begins). Then there are also pieces that feel kind of like the Oddworld series with fantastic architecture and bizarre landscapes and creatures. The plot is so peculiar, the individual cutscenes so incomprehensible, that the whole mess could come from a David Lynch movie. And the compilation of all these diverse elements comes together in a way that’s not all bad, but not all good either. It’s a mildly addictive little piece of combat action fluff that suffers in the long run because of the sort of redundant nature of the combat and the uneven flow of the game action.
Let me start by getting the mess out of the way – the plot, or rather what there is of it. I was literally lost during the opening movie, and it hardly got better as the game progressed. You play Ghat, a, um, creature of some kind who lives in some Escher-like world with rolling landscapes and strange buildings and creatures. You kill something called mother-father – I’m not even going to take a shot at what it is, but it’s a creature of some reverence to the others of your kind, perhaps the hermaphroditic bearer of your species. This killing upsets everyone, and now they want to kill you, so you flee your home with a friend of yours named Deadra and you go many strange and wonderful places where members of your family and other creatures try to kill you. Where you ultimately hope to go, what you hope to do when you get there, why you even killed mother-father in the first place – you have absolutely no idea until perhaps the last minute of the game. After all these adventures in killing you end up back at home again, where you confront the apparently not dead mother-father, and this time you kill it for sure. The end. Were there spoilers in there? I’m not even sure. This story is told through cutscenes using pointless meandering dialog; it made my eyes roll back in my head just trying to watch them.
When not trying to noodle your way through the mystery of the plot you’re walking first-person-style along in the world. To call this adventuring is something of a misnomer. It’s more like you’re walking down a narrow dungeon corridor with a better view. Your path through the world is absolutely linear, often marked out like a path in the grass or the only dry way to go in a swamp, and sometimes edged by big rocks that you can’t get past. You’re very clearly on the rails without any choice in the matter. In areas where you’re out on a broad plain, attempts to leave the patch get you assaulted by big biting worms that come out of the ground and push you back onto the path.
When you happen upon a creature or creatures a big versus screen comes up which pauses the game for a moment, and then you’re into combat. It’s you against three or more creatures, except when you come up against a boss creature who usually fights you solo or with just one other enemy. Combat is for the most part hand-to-hand (or horn, or tusk, or big frigging fist). There are some weapons (a weird double-shot crossbow, a pair of small guns of some kind, a rifle) but they’re so slow to reload, and you can’t run while loading it, so an enemy usually comes over and whacks it out of your hands after just a few shots. There are also some various bashing weapons, but they too are slower than your hands and feet.
In combat you have a choice of blocking, throwing a punch, a kick, or a hard punch. You can also dodge and duck, grapple with your opponent, and other moves. There are probably those who will say that it devolves into button mashing, but I’d disagree. I think there is some strategy involved. For starters, you can’t just fight with one enemy, as the others will come up and punch you in the back of the head or shoot you in the back. You’ve got to keep moving, spread your attacks out, and wear down your opponents as a group. You’ve got a health bar and a fatigue bar – you’ve got to manage the pace of the combat. Big slow enemies will try and overwhelm you. Small speedy ones might use a hit and retreat tactic. You’re going to have to alter your tactics accordingly. The physics of the combat is truly amazing, and there’s a great visceral joy in grabbing your opponent by the hair and smashing his face into your knee or kicking your opponent in the gut when he’s down. Ah, good clean fun. When all the opponents are down that combat is over. There is fruit lying around that you can pick and eat for health. And then there’s maybe a cutscene and you’re off down the road again looking for the next combat.
A couple of hours of this is where the game starts to wear thin. Almost nothing comes at you without a versus screen first, so the action is very broken up between walking, fighting, and walking along to get to the next fight. Like the Street Fighter arcade game as you walk along the street waiting for the next pack of enemies to appear. The game doesn’t alter from this formula. You’re not collecting items or managing an inventory to any extent – just walking, fighting, more walking, more fighting. Once you’ve developed a combat strategy (I typically go with timed haymakers), you can defeat many enemies with ease, hardly allowing them to even lay a paw on you. You’re working your way through well-defined levels or combat areas, each with a boss at the end. I’m not sure how many levels there are, but the whole game can be completed in about three or four hours.
There is no multiplayer at all. There is a challenge mode where you fight your way up a high tower which has enemies on every floor. The tower is broken into five blocks (I think) of five floors each, and you can go online to compare your time and the amount of damage you took completing the various blocks. Freed from the plot and the walking, that game is almost more interesting, but suffers again from redundancy after just a few hours.
Graphically, this game is out of this world, literally. The textures are vibrant. The creatures are at once familiar and distorted in nightmare proportions with elongates limbs and outsized facial features. There are things like dinosaurs and others like enormous insects, humanoid creatures with animal heads, and peculiar giant hopping birds. The architecture is Escher meets Dr. Seuss. Since Bioshock, I haven’t seen a game that inspired an equal level of graphical and artistic awe. In the sound department there’s much less going on. There are some animal noises, and humanoid creatures will yell simple phrases at you in a raspy voice. All the punches sound like they came from the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack, that sort of slap impact that apparently was made by smacking a catcher’s mitt with a handful of wet Bok Choy. Oh, and there are some weapon noises – they’re actually pretty good – the pow of the rifle or the twang of the crossbow.
As I walk away from my review and Zeno Clash I’m left with the feeling that as an arcade game (albeit one with vastly superior graphics), something that you would chuck a few quarters at and play for a couple of hours and then not play again for several months, it would have been OK. As a guy who played Fallout 3, Oblivion, or Command and Conquer 3 for a few hours at a shot for days and days on end, Zeno Clash lacks that level of depth to hold interest.